First Party System

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The First Party System is the term political scientists and historians give to the political system governing the United States between 1792 and the early 1820s. It featured two national parties that competed for control of the Presidency, Congress, and the states: the Federalist Party (created by Alexander Hamilton) and the Democratic-Republican Party (or Jeffersonian Republican Party) (created by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison). Partisan politics virtually ended during the Era of Good Feelings (1816-1824), as the Federalists shrank to a few isolated strongholds. In 1824-28, as the Second Party System emerged, the Democratic-Republican Party split into the Jacksonian faction (which became the modern Democratic Party in the 1830s) and the Henry Clay faction which became the Whig Party.

Washington Administration (1789–1797)

At first there were no parties in the new nation. Factions soon formed around such dominant personalities as Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who opposed Hamilton's broad vision of a powerful government. Jefferson especially objected to Hamilton's flexible view of the Constitution, which Hamilton stretched to include a national bank. Washington was re-elected without opposition in 1792.

Hamilton built a national network of supporters that emerged about 1792–93 as the Federalist Party. In response, Jefferson and Madison built a network of supporters in Congress, then reached out to state leaders; their party emerged in 1792-93 as the Republican party[1] The elections of 1792 were the first to be contested on anything resembling a partisan basis. In most states, the congressional elections were recognized in some sense, as Jefferson strategist John Beckley put it, as a "struggle between the Treasury department and the republican interest." In New York, the race for governor was organized along these lines. The candidates were John Jay, a Hamiltonian, and incumbent George Clinton, who was allied with Jefferson and the Republicans. [2]

In 1793, the first Democratic-Republican Societies were formed. They supported the French Revolution, which had just seen the execution of King Louis XVI, and generally supported the Jeffersonian cause. The word "democrat" was proposed by Citizen Genet for the societies, and the Federalists quickly began to ridicule Jefferson's friends as "democrats". After Washington denounced the societies as unrepublican, they mostly faded away.

In 1793, war broke out between Britain and France. The Jeffersonians favored France and pointed to the 1778 treaty that was still in effect. Washington and his unanimous cabinet (including Jefferson) decided the treaty did not bind the U.S. to enter the war; instead Washington proclaimed neutrality.

When war threatened with Britain in 1794, Washington sent John Jay to negotiate the Jay Treaty with Britain; it was signed in late 1794, and ratified in 1795. It averted a possible war and settled many (but not all) the outstanding issues between the U.S. and Britain., [3] the Jeffersonians vehemently denounced it as a sell-out to Britain, saying it threatened to undermine republicanism by giving the aristocratic British and their Federalist allies too much influence. The Federalists said it avoided war, reduced the Indian threat, created good trade relations with the world's foremost economic power, and ended lingering disputes from the Revolutionary War. The Federalists used the enormous prestige of President Washington to secure Senate approval by the needed 2/3 vote.[4] The fierce debates over the Jay Treaty in 1794-96 according to William Nisbet Chanbers, nationalized politics and turned a faction in Congress into a nationwide party. To fight the treaty the Jeffersonians "established coordination in activity between leaders at the capital, and leaders, actives and popular followings in the states, counties and towns." [5] When Jefferson came to power in 1801 he honored the Jay treaty, but new disputes with Britain ended friendl;y relations in 1805 and led to the War of 1812. [6]

In 1796 Jefferson challenged John Adams for the presidency and lost. The Electoral College made the decision, and it was chosen by the state legislatures, which still lacked parties.

Newspapers as party weapons

Federalist poster about 1800. Washington (in heaven) tells partisans to keep the pillars of Federalism, Republicanism and Democracy

Pasley (2000) shows John Fenno began publishing his Gazette of the United States in April 1789 hoping it would become the official paper of the new government; soon Hamilton was encouraging and subsidizing him. Jefferson and Madison persuaded Philip M. Freneau, a brillian poet, to found the National Gazette in Philadelphia in October 1791. The National Gazette at first served as a successful political tool for the Jeffersonians as it defined arguments against Hamilton's policies while rebutting Fenno's editorials. The National Gazette collapsed in 1793 due to weak circulation and the political fallout over Jefferson and Madison's financial involvement in founding the paper.

By 1796, both parties had a national network of newspapers, which attacked each other vehemently. In 1802 the New York Evening Post, with large amounts of advertising by Federalist merchants, published a daily edition for 1100 subscribers in the city, and a weekly edition that circulated to 1600 subscribers nationwide. The Federalist and Republican newspapers of the 1790s traded vicious barbs. Hamilton's vices, both personal and political, were favorite targets, as shown by this doggerel from a Democratic-Republican paper: [7]

  • ASK—who lies here beneath this monument?
  • L o!—’tis a self created MONSTER, who
  • E mbraced all vice. His arrogance was like
  • X erxes, who flogg’d the disobedient sea,
  • A dultery his smallest crime; when he
  • N obility affected. This privilege
  • D ecreed by Monarchs, was to that annext.
  • E nticing and entic’d to ev’ry fraud,
  • R enounced virtue, liberty and God.
  • H aunted by whores—he haunted them in turn
  • A ristocratic was this noble Goat
  • M onster of monsters, in pollution skill’d
  • I mmers’d in mischief, brothels, funds & banks
  • L ewd slave to lust,—afforded consolation;
  • T o mourning whores, and tory-lamentation.
  • O utdid all fools, tainted with royal name;
  • N one but fools, their wickedness proclaim.

Party strength in Congress

Historians have used statistical techniques to estimate the party breakdown in Congress. Many Congressmen were hard to classify in the first few years, but after 1796 there was less uncertainty.

Election year
House 1788 1790 1792 1794 1796 1798 1800 1802 1804 1806 1808 1810 1812 1814 1816 1818 1820
Federalist 37 39 51 47 57 60 38 39 25 24 50 36 68 64 39 26 32
Dem-Rep 28 30 54 59 49 46 65 103 116 118 92 107 114 119 146 160 155
 % Dem-Rep 43% 43% 51% 56% 46% 43% 63% 73% 82% 83% 65% 75% 63% 65% 79% 86% 83%
Federalist 18 16 16 21 22 22 15 9 7 6 7 6 8 12 12 9 4
Dem-Rep 8 13 14 11 10 10 17 25 17 28 27 30 28 26 30 37 44
 % Dem-Rep 31% 45% 47% 34% 31% 31% 53% 74% 71% 82% 79% 83% 78% 68% 71% 80% 92%

Source: Kenneth C. Martis, The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the United States Congress, 1789-1989 (1989); the numbers are estimates by historians.

The affiliation of many Congressmen in the earliest years is an assignment by later historians. The parties were slowly coalescing groups; at first there were many independents.

Inventing campaign techniques

Both parties invented entirely new campaign techniques that became the core of American political practice. The Federalists took the lead in building a network of newspapers in major cities to broadcast their statements and editorialize in their favor. In 1796 the Federalist papers outnumbered the Republicans by 4-1. Every year more paper began publishing; in 1800 the Federalists still had a 2-1 numerical advantage. Most papers, on each side, were weeklies with a circulation of 300 to 1000.[8] Jefferson systematically subsidized the editors. Fisher Ames, a leading Federalist, who used the term "Jacobin" to link Jefferson's followers to the terrorists of the French Revolution, blamed the newspapers for electing Jefferson. They were, he wrote, "an overmatch for any Government.... The Jacobins owe their triumph to the unceasing use of this engine; not so much to skill in use of it as by repetition." [9] Historians echo Ames' assessment. As one explains, "It was the good fortune of the Republicans to have within their ranks a number of highly gifted political manipulators and propagandists. Some of them had the ability... to not only see and analyze the problem at hand but to present it in a succinct fashion; in short, to fabricate the apt phrase, to coin the compelling slogan and appeal to the electorate on any given issue in language it could understand." Outstanding phrasemakers included editor William Duane and party leaders Albert Gallatin, Thomas Cooper and of course Jefferson himself. [10] Meanwhile John J. Beckley of Pennsylvania, an ardent partisan, invented new campaign techniques (such as mass distribution of pamphlets and handwritten ballots) that generated the grass-roots support and unprecedented levels of voter turnout for the Jeffersonians.

In 1798 the disputes with France led to a Quasi-War, an undeclared naval war involving the navies and merchant ships of both countries. Democratic-Republicans said France really wanted peace, but the XYZ Affair undercut their position. Warning that full-scale war with France was imminent, Hamilton and his "High Federalist" allies forced the issue by getting Congressional approval to raise a large new army (which Hamilton controlled), replete with officers' commissions (which he bestowed on his partisans). The Alien and Sedition Act (1798) clamped down on dissenters, including pro-Jefferson editors, and Vermont Congressmember Matthew Lyon, who won re-election while in jail in 1798. In the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions (1798), secretly drafted by Madison and Jefferson, the legislatures of the two states challenged the power of the federal government.[11]

Jefferson and the revolution of 1800

Madison worked diligently to form party lines inside the Congress and build coalitions with sympathetic political factions in each state. In 1800, a critical election galvanized the electorate, sweeping the Federalists out of power, and electing Jefferson and his Republican Party. Adams made a few last minute appointments, notably Federalist John Marshall as Chief Justice, a post he held for three decades and used it to federalize the Constitution, much to Jefferson's dismay.[12]

The New York state electoral vote was decisive--it was controlled by Aaron Burr, who became vice-president

The Jeffersonian majority in Congress and key states was so large that it tended to split into factions. The minority faction, which tended to collaborate with Federalists, was called Quids in Pennsyvania, New York and Virginia, though the three groups were not directly connected. After years as Jefferson's leader in the House, John Randolph of Roanoke led a splitaway faction in Congress called Quids.

As president, Jefferson worked to cleanse the government of Adam's "midnight" Federalist appointments made days before Jefferson took office. He withheld the commissions of 25 of 42 midnight appointment judges and removed Army officers. The sense that the nation needed two rival parties to balance each other had not been fully accepted by either party; Hamilton had viewed Jefferson's election as the failure of the Federalist experiment. The rhetoric of the day was cataclysmic—election of the opposition meant the enemy would ruin the nation. Jefferson's foreign policy was not exactly pro-Napoleon, but it applied pressure on Britain to stop impressment of American sailors and other hostile acts. By engineering an embargo of trade against Britain, Jefferson and Madison plunged the nation into economic depression, ruined much of the business of Federalist New England, and finally precipitated the War of 1812 with a much larger and more powerful foe. [13]

The Federalists vigorously criticized the government, and gained strength in the industrial Northeast. However, they committed a major blunder in 1814. That year the semi-secret "Hartford Convention" passed resolutions that verged on secession; their publication ruined the Federalist party. It had been limping along for years, with strength in New England and scattered eastern states but practically no strength in the West. While Federalists helped invent or develop numerous campaign techniques (such as conventions), their elitist bias alienated the middle class, thus allowing the Jeffersonians to claim they represented the true spirit of "republicanism."[14]

State parties

Because of the importance of foreign policy (decided by the national government), of the sale of national lands, and the patronage controlled by the President, the factions in each state realigned themselves in parallel with the Federalists and Republicans. Some newspaper editors became powerful politicians, such as Thomas Ritchie, whose "Richmond Junto" controlled Virginia state politics for decades.


New England was always the stronghold of the Federalist party. One historian explains how well organized it was in Connecticut:

It was only necessary to perfect the working methods of the organized body of office-holders who made up the nucleus of the party. There were the state officers, the assistants, and a large majority of the Assembly. In every county there was a sheriff with his deputies. All of the state, county, and town judges were potential and generally active workers. Every town had several justices of the peace, school directors and, in Federalist towns, all the town officers who were ready to carry on the party's work.... Militia officers, state's attorneys, lawyers, professors and schoolteachers were in the van of this "conscript army." In all, about a thousand or eleven hundred dependent officer-holders were described as the inner ring which could always be depended upon for their own and enough more votes within their control to decide an election. This was the Federalist machine. [15]

Given the power of the Federalists the Republicans had to work harder to win. In 1806, the Connecticut state Republican leadership sent town leaders instructions for the forthcoming elections. Every town manager was told by state leaders "to appoint a district manager in each district or section of his town, obtaining from each an assurance that he will faithfully do his duty." Then the town manager was instructed to compile lists and total up the number of taxpayers, the number of eligible voters, how many were "decided republicans," "decided federalists," or "doubtful," and finally to count the number of supporters who were not currently eligible to vote but who might qualify (by age or taxes) at the next election. The returns eventually went to the state manager, who issues directions to laggard town to get all the eligibles to the town meetings, help the young men qualify to vote, to nominate a full ticket for local elections, and to print and distribute the party ticket. (The secret ballot did not appear for a century. ) [16] This highly coordinated "get-out-the-vote" drive would be familiar to modern political campaigners, but was the first of its kind in world history.

Religious tensions polarized Connecticut, as the established Congregational Church, in alliance with the Federalists, tried to maintain its grip on power. Dissenting groups moved toward the Jeffersonians. The failure of the Hartford Convention in 1814 wounded the Federalists, who were finally upended by the Republicans in 1817.


Demaree (1985) examined the relationship between constituency characteristics of Maryland's nineteen counties, Annapolis, and Baltimore and the voting behavior of members of the House of Delegates elected by these constituencies from 1789 to 1824 . The personal characteristics, regional identification and party membership were also considered as possible influences. Regionalism was not a powerful factor because delegates from different regions were more likely to agree than to disagree with each other. Party membership was the best predictor of voting behavior. The strength of party cohesion interfered with the influence of constituency characteristics on voting, especially among the Federalists. Of all the constituency characteristics, slavery was most influential on voting behavior. A consistent pattern developed that illustrated that Jeffersonian Republicans from counties with large slave populations tended to be the ones to break with their fellow Republicans and vote with Federalists, who tended to be identified with the plantation society in Maryland. Thus, though political parties acted as strong, cohesive forces in the Maryland House of Delegates during the first party system, an association with slave-holding interests sometimes overshadowed partisan loyalty, a portent of the divisive quality of slavery in the nation.

Era of Good Feelings

The United States by 1800 had the first two-party system in the world. The First Party System was built around foreign policy issues that vanished with the defeat of Napoleon and the compromise settlement of the War of 1812. Furthermore, the fears that Federalists were plotting to reintroduce aristocracy dissipated. Thus an "Era of Good Feelings" under James Monroe replaced the high-tension politics of the First Party System about 1816. Personal politics and factional disputes could occasionally still get nasty, but Americans no longer thought of themselves in terms of political parties.

Historians have debated the exact ending of the system. Most concluded it petered out by 1820. The little state of Delaware, largely isolated from the larger political forces controlling the nation, saw the First Party System continue well into the 1820s, with the Federalists occasionally winning some offices. For the rest of the nation, the contributions of the founding fathers of political parties had been completed—and thus it seems symbolic that Adams and Jefferson died on the same day (4 July 1826), even on their deathbeds acknowledging the other's remarkable contributions.

Legitimacy of a party system

Alexander Hamilton felt that only by mobilizing its supporters on a daily basis in every state on many issues could support for the government be sustained through thick and thin. Newspapers were needed to communicate inside the party; patronage helped the party's leaders and made new friends. Hamilton, and especially Washington, distrusted the idea of an opposition party, as shown in George Washington's "Farewell Address" of 1796. They thought opposition parties would only weaken the nation. By contrast Jefferson was the main force behind the creation and continuity of an opposition party. He deeply felt the Federalists represented aristocratic forces hostile to true republicanism and the true will of the people, as he explained in a letter to Henry Lee in 1824:

Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, liberals and serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, whigs and tories, republicans and federalists, aristocrats and democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last appellation of aristocrats and democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all."

Hofstadter (1970) shows it took many years for the idea to take hold that having two parties is better than having one, or none. That transition was made possible by the successful passing of power in 1801 from one party to the other. Although Jefferson systematically identified Federalist army officers and officeholders, he was blocked from removing all of them by protests from Republicans. The Quids complained he did not go far enough.


  1. Thomas Jefferson to President Washington, May 23, 1792 "The republican party, who wish to preserve the government in it's present form, are fewer in number. They are fewer even when joined by the two, three, or half dozen anti-federalists,..."
    James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, March 2, 1794. "I see by a paper of last evening that even in New York a meeting of the people has taken place, at the instance of the Republican Party, and that a committee is appointed for the like purpose."
  2. Elkins and McKitrick, p. 288
  3. Elkins and McKitrick, 405-12
  4. Elkins and McKitrick, 417-8; Goodman (1964) 71-2.
  5. Chambers, Political Parties p. 80
  6. Miller, Federalist Era pp 165-78
  7. Independent Chronicle (Boston), 16 October 1797 quoted in Carol Sue Humphrey, The Revolutionary Era: Primary Documents on Events from 1776 to 1800 (2003) p, 260
  8. Stewart, Opposition Press, p. 622
  9. Cunningham, 1957 p 167
  10. Tinkcom 271
  11. Miller, Federalist Era pp 210-43
  12. Miller, Federalist Era pp 251-77
  13. Smelser, Democratic Republic
  14. Banner, To the Hartford Convention (1970)
  15. Richard J. Purcell, Connecticut in Transition: 1775-1818 1963. p. 190.
  16. Noble E. Cunningham, Jr. The Jeffersonian Republicans in Power: Party Operations 1801-1809 (1963) p 129